Comment: Critical Point Physics World  August 2017
(CC-BY-ND Argonne National Laboratory)

Oh, America!

Robert P Crease identifies the main threat to the US’s approach to scientific planning

The greatest threat to America’s science planning is active ignorance.

Let me illustrate with an episode that happened 14 years ago, but might as well have been yesterday. In 2003 the US Department of Energy (DOE) released a report entitled Facilities for the Future of Science: a Twenty-Year Outlook, which prioritized 28 proposed projects costing $50m or more.

Written by the DOE’s Office of Science, the report highlighted exciting new facilities such as the Linac Coherent Light Source at the SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory. It also picked out upgrades to several existing light sources: the Advanced Light Source at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, the Advanced Photon Source at Argonne National Laboratory and the National Synchrotron Light Source (eventually NSLS II) at Brookhaven National Laboratory.

Spencer Abraham, who was DOE secretary at the time, released the report with great fanfare, and it was widely reported in the science press. Facilities for the Future of Science was also posted online by a reader of Slashdot – the tech-savvy website that bills itself as “News for nerds. Stuff that matters”. Slashdot’s readers posted a few critical comments about the report, but one made my jaw drop.

“I’m all for research,” wrote a reader named Salamander, “but most of the stuff on this list is ‘big science’ only in terms of the money that will be spent, not the knowledge that will be gained. There’s tons of biotech, materials science, computing, optics, and other research that would be more rewarding. The most appalling omission is that the DOE doesn’t seem to think that battery technology – the thing holding back deployment of many other technologies – deserves even one project. Nothing on portable fuel cells, microturbines, biodiesel, wave power, or other energy-related technologies either, except fusion. What is the DOE thinking?”

Oh, America! I say those words with a mixture of sorrow and rage. Sorrow, because the government agency investing in these facilities does a pathetic job of justifying them to voters. Rage, because Slashdot readers, who pride themselves on their knowledge, should have known better.

Slashdot is “a built-in assembly of the DOE’s natural constituency”, says Bruce Ravel, a physicist at the National Institute of Standards and Technology who recently drew my attention to the post. “That the DOE couldn’t even convince a bunch of Slashdot-ers that its facility funding list was a good idea is pretty damning.”

Anyone with the slightest knowledge of these facilities knows exactly what the DOE was thinking. Research into battery technology is among the most exciting projects conducted at synchrotron sources. Other key energy-related projects involve fuel cells and biofuels, and developing the microfabrication procedures on which other energy-related technologies will depend, such as microturbines. In fact, it would be impossible to pursue such energy projects intelligently without facilities of the kind the DOE was prioritizing.

What’s more, the scientific infrastructure that the DOE was evaluating supports many other projects too – and does so to this day. These range from analysing the composition of comets and enabling the creation of HIV drugs to developing the ability to locate trace explosives in anti-terrorism programmes and even studying imperilled fish. That’s what the DOE was thinking. But in a fully self-aware democracy, the connections between the scientific infrastructure and such projects should be obvious to both politicians and the public.

Two types of ignorance

Salamander is just one Slashdot reader, and let’s hope an anomalous one. In truth, most Slashdot readers seem to express deeper insight into science. Still, I think the remark illustrates an urgent American problem – namely, the conviction that the country can and should address specific scientific, technological and health issues directly, without supporting the research infrastructure required to tackle them, or even knowing much about that infrastructure.

It is the conviction, for instance, that you can fight cancer without supporting basic research into how cells behave – or that you can promote battery technology without supporting facilities that allow investigating the behaviour of matter at the nanoscale. This conviction becomes a threat to America’s science programme when it is shared by the politicians who fund that programme.

This problem is a version of what philo­sophers call “active ignorance”. Basic ignorance means lacking knowledge of something, or having erroneous beliefs about it. I may, for example, not know about synchrotron sources and what they do, or about the origin of cancer, or may have only vague ideas about them. Basic ignorance nevertheless implies a good – or at least a neutral – will; that if and when the person who has basic ignorance is taught or corrected, that person will change their views.

Active ignorance, in contrast, involves what the Northwestern University philo­sopher José Medina, in his 2013 book The Epistemology of Resistance, calls “the active participation of the subject”. It indicates that a variety of attitudes and habits are in play that allow a person “to create and maintain bodies of ignorance” in areas of social and political concern. In short, people who are actively ignorant strive to remain ignorant.

The critical point

Medina’s book is about racial and sexual oppression and does not discuss science. But I find his discussion illustrative of the attitude that many Americans have towards science funding. If it is my duty to vote for politicians who formulate policies on issues like improving battery technology or curing cancer, it is also my duty to equip myself with the appropriate knowledge of how this happens; it is a moral failing if I do not.

As Medina notes, active ignorance is difficult to undo, for it is supported by “a battery of” defence mechanisms, which are also present in the context of US science policy. But naming and describing it is the first step.

Oh, America!